Do You Connect with Back to School?

It has been a number of months since my last blog. In full disclosure, I have been preoccupied searching for and ultimately starting a new job. Now that I have settled in, somewhat, I hope to get back on a more regular cadence of posting. Now, on to the good stuff! Thank you for reading.

It’s that time of year again: back to school. What, in May or June, seemed like a long and boundless summer ahead of us has quickly faded to cooler nights and yellowing leaves. At my house, back to school means my daughter will begin her sophomore year of high school; my son embarks on his freshman year of college; and my wife returns for her twenty-third year as a special education teacher.

LCM
Learner Connectivity Model

For me, back to school makes me think about renewal; fresh opportunities and new beginnings. It also makes me think about relationships and making connections. And, naturally, there are the nerves that can accompany the fresh start. For educators, it is a pivotal time to build rapport and inspire learning. And I am reminded of a framework for effectiveness in the educator role that I developed called the Learner Connectivity Model. Inclusive of all types of education – whether you are a teacher, instructor, trainer, facilitator, professor, coach, religious education leader, paid or volunteer – this model will help you make connections and increase effectiveness. It is composed of three parts: 1) Building connections between learners; 2) Building connections between learners and the learning content; and 3) Building connections between the teacher and the learner.

Building Connections Between Your Learners

LearnersMost learning – good learning – doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Whether your group size is 2 or 200, leveraging the connection between learners can catapult enthusiasm for learning. When learners feel a part of a group and empathy is established between learners who have differing perspectives, trust increases. As trust increases performance goes up. Additionally, you can maximize the effect of social learning. Experts argue that as much as 70% of learning can come from our peer groups. Social, or peer-to-peer, learning is happening whether the teacher is intentional about it or not, so why not jump out in front of it? If you don’t believe social learning exists, watch this classic Candid Camera video. Or, consider this scene from the blockbuster movie “A Few Good Men.” Tom Cruise’s character (Lt. Daniel Kaffee) asks Noah Wyle’s character (Cpl. Jeffrey Barnes) how he could possibly know where the mess hall is if it is not listed in the Marine’s training/operational manual. Cpl. Barnes responded by saying, “I guess I just followed the crowd at chow time.”

So how do you facilitate connections between your learners (or students)? Examples include: using icebreakers or get-to-know-you games, implementing classroom leadership roles, establishing learning buddies or accountability partners, maximizing diversity, using partner sharing, and assigning small group projects. Avoid becoming the center of attention. Aim instead to create an environment where students can keep growing on their own or with their peers. Whenever possible, step away and create moments of independence. How about you? What else have you done or could you do to promote peer-to-peer connections?

Building connections between learners and the learning

LearningLearning can be like a string of lights where when one bulb goes out, the whole strand doesn’t work. Learners are more successful when they can make connections between what they are learning and something they already know; it keeps the lights on. For example, when I began taking guitar lessons a couple of years ago I was able to draw on the knowledge of how to read notes from the piano lessons I took when I was in middle school. Whatever the learning goal or outcome is, and please share it explicitly with your students, if the learners can make an emotional connection to it the likelihood of being able to demonstrate proficiency skyrockets. Students want clear answers to the following three questions: What is it I am learning? Why am I learning it? What do I do with it? The more you can assist your students in finding compelling answers to those questions the better.

To help establish connections between your learners and what they are learning, try the following: frame up the learning by providing context and expectations, clearly state the learning objectives, establish relevancy, make connections to prior learning, empower students to make choices about about what is learned and when, allow time for reflection, use storytelling, and insert random knowledge checks. Great teachers don’t stand up in front and deliver motivational speeches (once and a while it is a magical happenstance). They stand alongside their students and deliver relevant information in small, meaningful chunks that encourage the learner to think critically.

Building connections between you and the learners

TeacherI know what you are thinking: it is not your job to be a friend to your students. And I won’t argue with you there. Yet it is clear and undeniable that if a student doesn’t like his or her teacher it will get in the way of their learning. Students will most likely remember you for how you made them feel, rather than how you instructed. Effective teaching – like most human interaction – is based on trust, which is established within the first few minutes of interaction. Before you can instruct, you have to show that you care.

To have inspirited learners, they need to see your passion and credibility. If something fires the student’s instinctive part of their brain to fight or flight, emotion runs high and their ability to exercise sound reason and judgement decreases. Allow me to share an example. My daughter arrived home from her first day of freshman year high school with a dislike for one of her teachers. That attitude didn’t change all year. What happened? The teacher’s first words to his students on the first day were, “This is the most difficult class you will take and most of you will fail.” Instinct…emotions…reason…“I don’t like this guy.” On the other hand, when a student believes their teacher cares about them and is an advocate for them then he or she will work harder in that class. Demonstrate your aptitude for compassion, forgiveness, and kindness; it matters how you treat your students.

How do you build connections between yourself and your learners? Examples include: connecting on an emotional level, smiling, listening, creating a safe environment for learning and sharing, celebrating achievements (even small ones), storytelling, and implementing “test and tells” to assess prior knowledge.

What works for you? What best practices can you adopt? Reach out to colleagues or friends who are teachers and learn from their successes and failures in establishing connections with their students. Make this the best back to school ever, and know that students and teachers are better together.

A Dad, a Decade, and a Dedication to Development

It is hard for me to believe, but this month marks the tenth anniversary since the death of my father. He would have turned 70 years old this month. His death was unexpected and I wasn’t prepared for it mentally. I got all too acquainted with the feelings of loss, regret, and frustration. And now, a decade later, my new normal puts up a stiff fight against the way things used to be as foremost on my mind.

The 2007 year-end review edition of “Wisconsin Grocer” magazine, the official magazine of the Wisconsin Grocers Association (WGA), contained both an article written by my dad and his obituary. Semi-retired from 35 years in the grocery business, he was working part-time for the WGA as its Member Services Representative. He had submitted the article titled “Coaching for Improved Work” prior to his death, leading to what in essence became advice from the grave. At the time when I first saw the magazine ten years ago, it seemed oddly normal to see both the article and the obituary; he did regularly write articles for the magazine, and he was most certainly dead after all. With death comes cold hard truths and I had no other means to process it. However, when I pulled out the magazine recently as I have been reflecting on my dad’s passing, it now struck me as being peculiar and unsettling to see both entries. It caused old feelings of anger and sadness to resurface in me.

I re-read the article (to be honest, I am not sure if I ever read the article when it was originally published). And doing so reminded me of many of the great qualities my dad had. His guidance in the article was indicative of the sage advice he often gave to family, friends, and colleagues. My dad understood the universal truth that organizations and the leaders who are trusted to run them must put time and effort into developing their employees.

There are many commonalities between the roles my father and I have held in the field of workplace training and development. He somewhat stumbled into the industry after working for many years in the grocery stores and then getting promoted to a corporate leadership position. I remember him telling me a story about the first time he facilitated a large workshop for managers and how nervous he was beforehand. He shared his concerns with his boss at the time who essentially told him to “suck it up.” He became very proficient in front of large groups as time went on, but he was more comfortable and impactful in an intimate setting. I, on the other hand, received a degree in education and have spent the majority of my career committed to helping employees perform at their best. I get awkward in one-on-one and small group settings, yet thrive when facilitating large groups. Similar yet different. Either way, we both appreciate the value of putting work in to the people side of business.

In his book “The Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality” (Doubleday Books. 1999), author Ronald Rolheiser writes about staying in contact with our loved ones after their death. For Christians, Rolheiser writes, “we find our loved ones after death separates us by giving concrete expressions in our lives to those virtues and qualities which they best incarnated.” He goes on, “Just as Mary Magdala did not find Jesus in his tomb, we too will not find our loved ones there (though good to visit graves). We will meet the ones we can no longer touch when we put ourselves in situations where their souls once flourished. Simply put, we find our loved ones by entering into life, in terms of love and faith, in the way that was most distinctive to them.” In other words, if you want to feel more in touch with a deceased loved one who was characteristically compassionate – be more compassionate yourself.

When I visit my dad’s grave, it is a good experience and allows time for me to reflect and pray in silence. But, I do not meet my dad there; I don’t feel connected to him there. To achieve that connection, I need to go to the places that are most distinctive of my dad. And that means going deeper than just doing the same things that he did. It took me a number of years to learn that. For example, my dad had a love of cars…Corvettes specifically. I have owned a couple of Corvettes myself, and while they conjured up thoughts and memories of my dad, they didn’t bring us in contact. I needed to go more to the core of his character to those traits he incarnated – for which he was the living embodiment of.

My dad had a way of making people feel at ease around him. And he was especially adept at finding the one who was most isolated, alienated, or uneasy, and reaching out to them. I experienced it a number of times myself at large gatherings I would arrive at (such as a wedding) where I didn’t know many people and my introversion would take over. Then I would see my dad and he would come over and talk with me and make me feel special. Immediately I felt more comfortable. I have come to learn that when I am warm and gracious, and when I reach out to the lonely, lost, or excluded, I meet my dad.

And so, to that end, I want to share an excerpt from my dad’s article on coaching so as to help me, and perhaps you, stay connected to my dad by being involved in an activity that was distinctively him-coaching.

“Most employees want better direction from management. They perform their jobs in the best way they know how, maybe not the way you would perceive them doing the job.

Coaching is one of the most powerful one-on-one management techniques for increasing work performance. Coaching becomes a great motivational tool. It provides an opportunity to communicate a detailed plan for working together to improve operational goals, objectives, and enhance customer satisfaction.

One of the most important investments is to invest time and effort into one of the most important assets: employees. Employees are the key to customer satisfaction and profitability. Train new employees and coach key employees to accept responsibility for executing outlined process improvements.

Just a thought, if the work assignments that are to be accomplished on any given day represent 100%, what percentage would you estimate will be accomplished that day with you not present and all of your employees on the job? If you rely on coaching and developing your staff, the chances are a greater percentage of work will be completed in a manner which equals your expectations.

Focus on making positive change happen. If you continue to always do what you always did, you will always get what you got before.”

Good advice ten years ago…good advice now…and good advice ten years from now. My dad was not a prolific writer, he didn’t have an organizational development pedigree, nor did he have a college degree. But he understood people. Regardless of any technological advancement, automation, process excellence, or any other development, people and managing relationships are still at the heart of all successful businesses, communities, and families. So why aren’t leaders more effective at coaching people?

In my experience, leaders accomplish the things which they are held accountable for. Often those things are sales, production, and customer satisfaction. Leaders are not held accountable – I mean really held accountable – for coaching and developing their people. I challenge you to make 2018 the year of the employee, and invest time and effort in them. Hold yourself and others accountable for coaching employees and perhaps you will see their distinctive virtues and qualities come to life.